Cambodia, like all members of ASEAN, has avoided a regional approach to combatting the COVID-19 pandemic, with Prime Minister Hun Sen preferring to take the reins and govern as he sees fit.
It’s a reasonable strategy given the inability of ASEAN to act uniformly on any political issue to erupt in Southeast Asia, ranging from human rights to maritime disputes in the South China Sea or a coordinated approach to the new coronavirus.
Like Vietnam and Laos, Cambodia has emerged relatively unscathed from the pandemic when compared with elsewhere. There have been 226 confirmed cases and no deaths from a pandemic that has reached 13 out of 25 provinces and the capital Phnom Penh.
Of those confirmed to have COVID-19, 147 patients have recovered.
Land borders with Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand remain closed. But between June 20 and July 25, 108 cases were detected out of 23,567 passengers arriving from Indonesia and Malaysia, prompting Hun Sen to suspend all flights with both countries.
The suspension was expected to strengthen “health safety for people across the country because from August and September, Cambodia will have many holidays, and people will travel to different tourism destinations,” the government said.
While the numbers are small, the spike is worrying and on paper at least correlates with a nasty increase in COVID-19 cases recorded everywhere from the United States to Australia.
“People should not underestimate Covid-19. This respiratory disease is very serious, highly infectious and there is no cure yet,” the prime minister wrote on his Facebook page.
He has also agreed in principle to eliminate the $3,000 deposit and $50,000 COVID-19 insurance for investors, business people, and experts that is required when entering the country.
However, the decision is still under examination by officials in the health and economic ministries and there’s no word on whether permanent residents and tourists – once a pillar of the Cambodian economy – will also be exempt.
This has had enormous ramifications. Foreigners can ill afford to travel, particularly those with local wives and children. Some have had close relatives pass away in home countries but cannot leave Cambodia, where jobs are scarce and pay cuts are common.
Foreign aid designed to help Cambodia fight the virus and support its economy has been generous, with Australia, China, the European Union, Japan, and the United States, among others, lending a hand.
But pre-COVID structural problems are inherent in the already struggling economy.
Western expats and businesses began leaving Cambodia amid a crackdown on dissent ahead of elections in 2018, when the main opposition party was banned and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won every seat in the National Assembly.
The United States initiated sanctions targeting some in the ruling elite and the EU partially withdrew trade preferences. More potential sanctions are looming after Cambodia was added to a list of 12 “high risk” money laundering countries.
As a result Cambodia now relies on Chinese largesse more than ever. But China has been increasingly isolated, a legacy of Beijing’s policies under Xi Jinping, and in turn Beijing can only rely on Cambodia and North Korea as unquestionable allies.
Given Chinese threats and the constant talk of conflict in the South China Sea – now viewed as a crisis – that’s cold comfort for the few thousand Westerners who have remained in Cambodia and skipped the last repatriation flights out in April.
For the time being all anyone can do is wait it out, but patience will wear thin. That’s another worrying prospect given COVID-19 will continue to dominate how people are governed well into next year and quite possibly a lot longer.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt